Death Trick by Richard Stevenson
I picked up a copy of this e-book after reading Sunita’s post on historical authenticity and reader resistance. Death Trick is a mystery set within the gay subculture of Albany in 1979; it’s the first of a series of mysteries with Donald Strachey, a private investigator, as protagonist. The books were written in the late 70s and early 80s, and have recently begun to be re-issued through MLR Press.
Observations about the book as object:
Has MLR offended the cover gods? Because their covers are bad as a rule and this one is particularly heinous with the coloring and the bad photoshopping.
The formatting was pretty wonky as I read on the Kindle app for iPhone: changing font sizes, misplaced syllable breaks, etc. I can only hope it’s better when read via other apps or readers or in other electronic formats.
Summary of the plot:
Billy Blount is wanted for murder – his trick of the night was found dead in bed, and Billy is the most likely suspect. Except he’s disappeared. Donald Strachey is contacted by the Blounts, a monied family, to find their son. Why contact him when the police are looking for their son already? Strachey has an entrée into places the police don’t: he’s gay, and thus is more likely to get responses from Billy’s circle of friends than the police.
Using the names listed in Billy’s little black book, first names all of them, Strachey pieces together what happened the night of the murder, and also how the murder connects to other attacks on gay men and Billy’s history as a confused boy and then vehemently out and politically active young man.
What did I think?
Death Trick, in addition to being a good procedural novel, is a fascinating observation of the manifestations of homophobia of that time period: violence to be feared from people outside the community, even (especially?) the police; the common belief that homosexuality was an illness that could or should be cured; and the sheer volume of insults, both intentional, accidental, and institutional, that gay men and women lived with at the time. It also sketches in the detail of a certain lifestyle of young(ish) gay men of that time. As Sunita noted, the period in which this book was set was post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS, a narrow slice of time of the swinging 70s when anything went.
Don is an interesting character. He’s a trained investigator by profession, relatively recently divorced, and in a fairly stable relationship. He’s being pressed by practicality (needing the job and the paycheck from the Blounts) but still manages to be a Robin Hood for his community in some ways – squeezing money out of them for gay causes, carefully circumventing the “treatment” they have arranged for their son in lieu of imprisonment.
Enjoyed the book very much and thought the mystery was very well done. All the clues were there from the beginning, but I didn’t put them together until it was almost too late.
Re: historical authenticity, in some ways this setting is as alien to me as a book set in 1812, in terms of the pervading modes of behavior. Having come of age in the AIDS era, the easy, open approach to unprotected sex with random strangers without any concern for disease or health risk, is utterly foreign to me. As I read, I had to remind myself that functionally, Strachey had no reason to concerned about long-term health effects of random encounters.
FYI, several Donald Strachey mysteries have been made into movies or TV movies. I’m not sure which books the DVDs correspond to, but I’ve got a couple of them in the Netflix queue.